December 27, 2011

Psalm 97 – Light, Sown for the Righteous

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

1. It is the LORD Who is king! Let the earth be glad, let the many distant lands1 rejoice.
2. Cloud and storm cloud round about Him, righteousness and judgment are the foundation of His throne.
3. Fire goes before Him, burning His foes round about.
4. His lightning bolts have lit up the world; the earth saw it and trembled;
5. mountains melting like wax in facing the LORD, in facing the Lord of all the earth.
6. The heavens have proclaimed His righteousness and all the peoples have seen His glory.
7. Let all who worship graven images, who boast of their idols, be dismayed; all you gods, prostrate yourselves to Him.
8. Zion heard and rejoiced; the towns2 of Judah were glad because of Your judgments, O LORD.
9. 3-For You, O LORD, are Most High, above all the earth; You have taken the highest place4, above all gods.-3

10. Lovers of the LORD, hate evil! He is the guardian of the lives of His devoted ones; from the hand of the wicked He saves them.
11. Light is sown for the righteous and for those who are upright of heart, joy.
12. Rejoice, O righteous ones, in the LORD and give thanks to His holy name.

1. Literally, “isles,” implying distant overseas locales.
2. Literally, “daughters.”
3. In verse 9, the four uses of “high” or “above,” are all of a single root (‘-l-h).
4. Others, “He is greatly exalted.” Verb here seen as reflexive, that God takes Himself up, as per the uses in Num. 16: 24, 27; Jer. 37:5, 11 (and possibly Ps. 47:10).


A Psalm of Changing Focus

Psalm 97 pictures God's dominance, and possibly his victory (or Israel's victory) over other nations, and joy is called for. However, the focus of Psalm 97 changes constantly. The psalm opens in heaven with a call to earth, with God’s presence, physically obscured but morally clear (v. 2), dominating the scene. The setting quickly shifts into movement, as fire comes forth. The locale becomes the world, trembling at this new presence of the Lord. The heavens speak and the peoples observe. The literary camera then veers sharply, zooming in on subgroups: idolaters, lesser “gods,” and the cities of Judah. The joy of the last and the recollection of God’s judgment change the focus back to the Lord above all, who is now addressed directly.

The most radical shift comes with verse 10, as the righteous are twice addressed, these addresses framing four statements of God’s beneficence. The second address, appropriately, calls upon them to respond with praise. The prior, first section (vv. 1–9) is enclosed by the word that is also its guideword, “earth.”

Another Turning Point

By word count, verse 7 is at the center of Psalm 97, and it is further emphasized by an enclosing structure. The enclosing terms of the psalm are “joy” (same root as “rejoice”) and “righteousness,” each present three times in verses 1, 2, 11, 12. Further, “lit” and “light” (vv. 3, 11) and “all the Earth” (vv. 5, 9) also close in on this middle verse. Verse 7 also appears between the two other uses of the enclosing terms, “righteousness” in verse 6 and “rejoiced” in verse 8.

Verse 7 is the sole negative statement in Psalm 97, scarcely a summary of the psalm, but certainly a turning point. Until that verse, the stage was the wide world. With verse 7, idolaters and their gods are eliminated from the scene and the poem turns to a very particularistic emphasis, even if the people of Israel are not mentioned by name. The towns of Israel are the celebrants and the addressees are His lovers, those devoted to Him. Verse 8, in fact, “claims” three terms used previously (vv. 1, 2) in relationship to the world, “gladness,” “joy,” and “judgment,” and reapplies them to Zion.

What began high up in heaven ends in an intimate relationship. It is a fascinating progression, one that might be considered moving down or up depending on one’s theology and emphasis. (Note: Verse 9 could be a quotation from the towns of Judah, in which case the first word, “for,” would then be translated “indeed.” The direct address would be another step toward intimacy with God.)

The psalmist has used several striking literary techniques, over and above the concentration of the middle verse, to move the poem forward. I focus on these in the following three subsections.

The World of Darkness and Light

The emphasis on light itself being clearest in verses 4 and 11, its import to the poet echoes through the psalm. At first, darkness coexists beautifully with light, in the single imagery of the storm with its lightning. God remains hidden, and the flashing instances that break that pattern engender fear and quaking. Is it enough, however, for the peoples to “see” His glory.

All of this quaking and shaking is most delicately balanced by light being “sown for the righteous” (v. 11), a most gentle phrase, both contributing to and befitting the tone of the last three verses. (See the section below on the final verses.)

Poetic Turns of Phrase

Psalm 97 contains a number of striking poetic turns of phrase. I note a few of these here (apart from the final three verses, which I treat separately).

1. Schaefer notes a beautiful balance in verse 2: “The meteorological twins, clouds and darkness, parallel the ethical twins, righteousness and justice.”

2.  The Hebrew contains an echo that closely identifies idolaters with their “gods” in the phrase “who boast of their idols” (hamit’halilim ba’elilim).

3. Verse 6 has the heavens speak, whereas the peoples only “see” the glory of the lightning. In verse 8, it is Zion that “hears.” This perhaps testifies to the openness of Zion to "hearing" the details of God's righteousness, as opposed to these peoples.

4. A similar point might be made by a poetic echo (vv. 6, 8): the earth “trembled” (tachel) but the cities of Judah “were glad” (tagel).

5. The imagery of verse 5, the mountains melting like wax, is particularly effective. Interpreters variously suggest a physical disintegration, lava flow from a volcano, mudslides from the storm, and fire from lightning. The image probably is best appreciated as metaphor, without trying to reduce it to one physical phenomenon.

6. Idolatry is attacked subtly in Psalm 97. References to mountains melting recall the locale of other “gods” in their myths, and the sky bespeaking God’s glory is also the location of certain leading gods of paganism. At the same time, the phenomena that God cites and employs are particularly intangible—clouds, storm clouds, fire, lightning, and light. This God is of a much less physical nature.

The Poetry of Conclusion

The ending of Psalm 97, as of so many others, adds a striking new factor that changes the psalm’s complexion. As noted, the purpose of God’s kingship is shifted from Creation and the worldwide scale to focus on His relationship with the righteous.

Psalm 97 is built of phrases found in many other psalms and other books of the Bible. (By one estimate, fully 42 percent of the psalm is “formulaic.”) However, we have seen that the psalmist’s use of language is particularly creative. Certainly there are few phrases as striking as verse 11, “light is sown for the righteous.” Undertones of the metaphor of a sown seed include concealment, inevitability, enlightenment, warmth, and depth, all indicated by a single phrase!

Verses 10 through 12 are structured as imperatives surrounding God’s relationship with the righteous, the latter described in two successive stages of two phrases each: immediate physical salvation and long-term reward. The imperatives to the righteous also build: “hate evil,” “rejoice,” and “acclaim.”

“Joy” is appropriately both a gift (v. 11) and a commandment (v. 12).

By the last verse, Psalm 97 is focused on Israel, and within Israel on the righteous, yet it carefully echoes "rejoice" from the first verse. Even as intimate gestures have replaced grandiose displays, the comparison is left as somewhat ambiguous: is one scale of rejoicing better than the other, or are they essentially the same?

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Additional Note

So effective is verse 11 that it was chosen among Ashkenazic (Occidental) Jews to be repeated thrice as the opening statement of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at


(א) יְהֹוָה מָלָךְ תָּגֵל הָאָרֶץ יִשְׂמְחוּ אִיִּים רַבִּים:
(ב) עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל סְבִיבָיו צֶדֶק וּמִשְׁפָּט מְכוֹן כִּסְאוֹ:
(ג) אֵשׁ לְפָנָיו תֵּלֵךְ וּתְלַהֵט סָבִיב צָרָיו:
(ד) הֵאִירוּ בְרָקָיו תֵּבֵל רָאֲתָה וַתָּחֵל הָאָרֶץ:
(ה) הָרִים כַּדּוֹנַג נָמַסּוּ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהֹוָה מִלִּפְנֵי אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ:
(ו) הִגִּידוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם צִדְקוֹ וְרָאוּ כָל הָעַמִּים כְּבוֹדוֹ:
(ז) יֵבֹשׁוּ כָּל עֹבְדֵי פֶסֶל הַמִּתְהַלְלִים בָּאֱלִילִים הִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ כָּל אֱלֹהִים:
(ח) שָׁמְעָה וַתִּשְׂמַח צִיּוֹן וַתָּגֵלְנָה בְּנוֹת יְהוּדָה לְמַעַן מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יְהֹוָה:
(ט) כִּי אַתָּה יְהֹוָה עֶלְיוֹן עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד נַעֲלֵיתָ עַל כָּל אֱלֹהִים:
(י) אֹהֲבֵי יְהֹוָה שִׂנְאוּ רָע שֹׁמֵר נַפְשׁוֹת חֲסִידָיו מִיַּד רְשָׁעִים יַצִּילֵם:
(יא) אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי לֵב שִׂמְחָה:
(יב) שִׂמְחוּ צַדִּיקִים בַּיהֹוָה וְהוֹדוּ לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ:

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